Fairness

By Murray Enkin


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I have been thinking these days about how lucky we (defined as my nuclear family) are compared to so many people in other parts of the world or even in our own country. While I am very grateful for this, it just does not seem fair. But then, the world never was, and probably never will be, fair. I decided, for today’s credo, to see what a few other people said about fairness. To my surprise, Wikipedia had almost nothing to say about fairness, but went right on to the various types of justice, which did not seem to me to be the same thing.  

I am certainly not alone in my credo that the world is not fair. It is obviously very much a matter of perspective. Those who feel, often quite justly, that they have been treated unfairly, complain. Calvin (the comic, not the theologian) was told by his father that the world was not fair. To which he replied, “I know, Dad, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?”

Some successful people believe the world is impartial and fair, that their good fortune is the result of their efforts and good action, and that everyone gets what they deserve. There may be a wee germ of truth in this, because when opportunity knocks one has to open the door. But that is only a tiny fragment of the picture. The world, nature, is not fair.

We have evolved to be the dominant living species on earth by a forking tree of selection, in which some thrived and survived, while others withered and died. And within our species’ success and failure, a more-than-fair share of wealth and resources or a less-than-fair share seems to depend more on where and when we were born, and to whom, rather than what we controlled by ourselves.

It is not reasonable to expect to always get what (we think) we deserve. “Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you’re a good person is like expecting a bull not to attack you because you’re a vegetarian.” And fairness does not necessarily mean that everyone gets the same. It does mean, however, that everyone gets what they need.

Confucius said, “To be wealthy and honored in an unjust society is a disgrace.” And Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both.” It is not easy to be fair. Brit Hume said, “Fairness is not an attitude. It's a professional skill that must be developed and exercised.” It is, however, a skill worth developing and working towards.

Murray Enkin is a 93-year-old retired rural family doctor, specialist obstetrician, professor at McMaster University, where he taught in the faculty of Medicine, first in Obstetrics and Gynecology, then in Clinical Epidemiology and biostatistics, and tutored in philosophy of science and population health. He holds two honorary degrees, is a Member of the Order of Canada, and has endowed permanent bursaries in Midwifery at McMaster and Ryerson University

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